In this blog series, we are interviewing members of the CT3 team about their background in education as well as the expertise that they each bring to their work with educators across the country.
Why did you want to become a teacher/educator?
I didn’t necessarily want to become a teacher. At a young age, I knew that I wanted my career to have a positive impact on children, and I always had a love for learning, so teaching seemed like the obvious choice. When I was in college I was able to get some field experience in an urban school in Columbus, Ohio. I was in a district that had seemingly low expectations for students and it often felt like the teacher was more of a babysitter. The experience actually led to me switching my major from Hospitality Management, because as I sat in classes focused on event planning all I could think about were the students at that school that weren’t getting a fair shot. As a white girl from an upper-middle-class family in the suburbs, I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to the unfair realities in many urban schools. I started doing some research and learned more about inequity and the achievement gap and became obsessed with learning more and finding ways to help. After one quarter in Hospitality Management, I switched back to Education, determined to become a high-quality teacher, not a babysitter, in an urban school.
Tell us about your background in education.
Upon graduation from The Ohio State University, I was accepted into Teach For America and moved to Phoenix, Arizona to teach kindergarten. While I loved Phoenix – the culture, the weather, the families – I missed my own family. I decided to move back to Cleveland in search of an opportunity to make a difference in my hometown. I became a founding kindergarten teacher of a charter school called Village Preparatory School. After teaching for one year, I moved into leadership as a Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and then as the Principal. It was a steep learning curve and a big job, but the hard work of my team paid off and we had strong results on our first state tests with an 85% Performance Index score.
What was your first teaching experience like? What did it teach you?
My first year in teaching was beyond hard, and while I usually try to block out hard times in my life, I hold on to those memories and think of my students often, because they shaped me as a person, a mother, and an educator. I had 31 kindergartners and only one spoke English. The majority of my students had undocumented parents, and I quickly learned the struggle families face when they are seeking better opportunities for their children here in the U.S. My one English speaker had a very racist father, and as a result, he would call the other children in class derogatory terms and lash out at them. I had a six-year-old boy whose parents were in a gang and during journaling, he would write the same words he would tag on walls around the city with his parents at night – “F*CK U! EAST SIDE RULZ!” I had a little girl who came in with hickeys from her grandfather on multiple occasions. I had a refugee from Somali in my class who refused to wear shoes because it hadn’t been part of his culture, and the trauma from his abrupt upheaval lead to severe tantrums where he would knock down bookshelves and run from the classroom. Almost every single day I would close the door and fall to the ground crying. I’d get out all the emotions, and then I’d pick myself up and get back to work, usually staying until 7 or 8 o’clock to plan for the next days. The work was so challenging, and it knocked me down every day, which was not something I was used to as a high-achieving perfectionist. But every morning, despite how much I felt I was failing them, I was greeted by the most beautiful and warm smiles and hugs. During story time, students were glued to the pictures and my voice…they couldn’t get close enough to the book and my lap. In that first year of teaching, I didn’t teach my students as much as I had set out to, but I was successful at setting a strong foundation for a love of learning. My students loved to come to school, loved the time they had with their maestra…their teacher, and I learned that this work was worth the effort.
Do you have any regrets from your first few years of teaching that you wish you could do over?
When I was a second-year teacher, I had a little boy in my kindergarten class named DaVaughn. DaVaughn was an incredibly with-it kid – way ahead of the other students in the class in terms of his maturity and academics. DaVaughn’s behavior was very challenging and despite my best attempts to manage the behavior, he typically ended up in the office every day. The principal was so sick of seeing DaVaughn in his office that he had me refer him to the school psychologist and he ended up being labeled “Oppositional Defiant” and sent to the alternative school – in kindergarten. While it certainly made things smoother in the classroom with DaVaughn gone, it always weighed on me that this brilliant child was labeled and sent away so young. I have no idea what impact that’s had on DaVaughn, but I’m pretty certain it didn’t help. What I do know is that I could have done better for him had I known what I know now.
What is your unique perspective when working with educators?
Six years ago, our 9-year-old nephew unexpectedly needed a place to stay for a while. His mother has a mental illness and was experiencing some significant challenges and wasn’t able to take care of him. I was six months pregnant with our first child and serving as a principal in a school that was experiencing growing pains, and suddenly we had a traumatized 9-year-old boy in our care. Not just any little boy, but a remarkably sweet, kind, and very confused little boy. A boy who was used to helping take care of his mother, moving frequently, sharing beds and rooms with others, and relying on the food that he received in his backpack every Friday. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just serving children with significant needs at school, I was also serving a child with significant needs at home. I remember shortly after he joined our family leading a morning meeting with my team and sharing, with tears in my eyes, how meaningful it was that each one of them worked so hard for our students. I now had a new perspective, a very personal one, on the role that each of us played in our students’ lives. My new lens was not only educating other peoples’ children and understanding their circumstances but now it was my own. It solidified my desire to do this work, and it helped me recognize that I wanted to be in a position where I could influence and support educators in their growth. CT3’s No-Nonsense Nurturer and Real Time Teacher Coaching® work provides me with an exceptional platform and approach to train educators. I want children like my nephew (now our adopted son) to have teachers who care enough to push him to be the best he can be, even when he pushes right back. I use this to fuel me and to simplify this complex work. As a process-driven person, when I work with educators I attempt to paint a picture of what can be overwhelming and seem over-complicated into a visual that is simple and obtainable, and worth the time and effort.
What are you an ‘expert’ in besides CT3’s work?
According to my mother, I should be a therapist, which I think is why I am successful at coaching educators. I’m pretty good at reading people, figuring out what motivates them, and helping them recognize their positive attributes and I’m straightforward in my approach to support people in reaching a goal.
What in your opinion is the most important aspect of school in order to best serve students?
I truly believe that leadership is the most important aspect of a school. But while a highly effective school leader can be transformational for a school, in the absence of a strong principal, a highly effective teacher leader can also be transformational for students. The adults in schools need to stand firmly as leaders, approaching their work with humility, a growth mindset, and high expectations for themselves and others.
What is your best advice for a first-year teacher?
This year is going to be harder than you ever imagined. There will be so many roadblocks and obstacles along the way that will make you question yourself and your abilities. Reflection is an integral part of growth and development, so make time to notice what you’re doing well and the positive impact that is having on others. Set aside fifteen minutes at the end of the day to do the following:
- Record in a journal something that went well that day related to your teaching: your planning, lesson delivery, assessment data; or an action you took that had a positive impact on a relationship with a student.
- Plan your time. Consider utilizing resources from “The Together Teacher” to help you with time and priority management.
- Make at least one positive phone call home. It will be a moment of elevation and pride for a child and family, and in return, it will fill your bucket and end the day on a positive note.
If you could only tell educators ONE thing about No-Nonsense Nurturer®, what would it be?
Once you understand and become a No-Nonsense Nurturer in the classroom, it transforms not only your classroom culture, but it transforms you. It becomes the way you approach many aspects of life. You are more reflective, culturally competent, focused on how your actions impact relationships, and willing to support and push your loved ones to be the best versions of themselves. Being a No-Nonsense Nurturer is a respectable and appreciated way of being, so embrace it and keep working to be the best version of yourself within it.
What’s been your proudest moment working with students?
It’s hard to pinpoint my proudest moment when there have been so many. But the moments that stand out to me are all related to moments that lead to deeper relationships with my students and their families. I always felt proud when a once tumultuous relationship with a parent turned into a partnership to support their child.
by Jackie Surratt, CT3 Associate
Click here to read more about Jackie.
Jackie co-authored a post titled “Think Pair Share…Gives Voice” which describes how the Think Pair Share strategy helps increase the celebration of student voice in the classroom.
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, and building relationships with students and their families.